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5 Fast Facts About Esther Afua Ocloo

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Today, Google is celebrating what would have been the 98th birthday of Esther Afua Ocloo with a Google Doodle. Just who was this groundbreaking businesswoman who was known to so many as “Auntie Ocloo”? Read on for five fast facts about her life and legacy.

1. SHE STARTED HER FIRST BUSINESS WITH LESS THAN A DOLLAR.

Thanks to a scholarship and the generosity of an aunt, Esther Afua Ocloo was able to attend Achimota School, one of Ghana’s most prestigious boarding schools. But unlike so many of her classmates, Ocloo—who was born Esther Afua Nkulenu—did not come from a wealthy family. (Her father was a blacksmith and her mother was a potter and farmer.) Still, Ocloo was determined to succeed in life, and on her own terms.

After graduating from high school, her aunt gifted her with 10 shillings (less than a dollar), which she used to purchase sugar, oranges, and a dozen jars in order to make some marmalade that she could sell. “I was determined to turn that 10 shillings into two pounds at least,” Ocloo recalled in an interview years later. "With six shillings I bought the ingredients to make marmalade, and went to the street side to sell the jars of marmalade. Within an hour I had sold all my jars and turned six shillings into 12! I was so excited I treated myself to a delicious lunch.”

2. SHE WAS ENCOURAGED BY HER FORMER TEACHERS.

Though she attended school with the children of some of Ghana’s most prominent families, Ocloo didn’t concern herself with the look of things. “Ghana was taking on more of the values of our colonizer, Britain,” she said of the atmosphere in Ghana in the early 1940s. “The attitude to people doing blue-collar work was terrible. In my days, people who had received a secondary education were expected to seek jobs in offices, managerial positions. I was ridiculed by all my classmates, who saw me hawking marmalade on the street like an uneducated street vendor. I went to a school with prestige, [where] the Ghanaians trying to mimic our colonizers looked down on the old fashioned traditions. But 80 percent of our teachers were European, and they were excited when they heard what I was doing.”

They were so excited that Ocloo’s alma mater became her first big client. “They invited me to supply the school with my marmalade two times a week,” she said. “They were so impressed with how successful my business was, they began reserving a percentage of my profits to save money for me to go to England for further training.” Between that and the contract she eventually secured with the military, Ocloo was able to take out a bank loan and make her business—known as Nkulenu Industries—official. The company is still doing business today, making jams and other food items, which are exported around the world.

3. SHE WAS THE FIRST BLACK INDIVIDUAL TO RECEIVE A COOKING DIPLOMA FROM THE GOOD HOUSEKEEPING INSTITUTE.

In addition to helping her get her first business off the ground, the Achimota School also helped Ocloo further her education. Between 1949 and 1951, the school sponsored her trip to England, where she received post-graduate training. In 1951, she received a cooking diploma from the Good Housekeeping Institute in London; she was the first black individual to achieve the honor. She also took classes in food science, technology, preservation, nutrition, and agriculture at Bristol University.

4. SHE DEDICATED HER LIFE TO HELPING OTHER WOMEN SUCCEED.

When Ocloo returned to Ghana, she wasn’t about to keep all of that education to herself. Instead, she dedicated much of her time and life to empowering other women to become self-sufficient, establishing a farm-based program to help teach women about business, food production, agriculture, and craft-making.

''I have taught them to cost the things they sell and determine their profits,'' Ocloo said. ''You know what we found? We found that a woman selling rice and stew on the side of the street is making more money than most women in office jobs—but they are not taken seriously."

In a separate interview, Ocloo spoke about where her desire to empower women came from. “I came from an underprivileged family,” she told The Odyssey. “I wanted to see to it that women were equipped to help their children so they don't suffer the same hardships. Women can contribute effectively—socially, economically, and culturally. Women are the economic backbone of West Africa. They produce over 80 percent of our food—from growing, to producing, to distributing, yet their jobs are not regarded in a high esteem.”

Over the course of her life, Ocloo helped to found eight nonprofit organizations, including the Sustainable End of Hunger Foundation and Women's World Banking, a microlending organization that gives small loans to female business owners who are unable to secure traditional bank loans. The organization operates in more than two dozen countries.

5. SHE BECAME THE FIRST WOMAN TO RECEIVE THE AFRICA PRIZE FOR LEADERSHIP.

In 1990, Ocloo achieved yet another first when she became the first woman to receive the Africa Prize for Leadership, an award given by The Hunger Project to “outstanding leaders from every level and every sector of society. Individually, their accomplishments have improved the lives of tens of millions of people. Together, they represent a new possibility.” True to form, Ocloo reinvested much of her prize money in the women she fought so hard to empower. Following her passing in 2002, The New York Times reported that when Ocloo’s children once complained to her about how all that training was only helping her competitors, Ocloo responded that, “I don't listen. My main goal is to help my fellow women. If they make better marmalade than me, I deserve the competition.”

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The Secret to the World's Most Comfortable Bed Might Be Yak Hair
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Savoir Beds laughs at your unspooling mail-order mattresses and their promises of ultimate comfort. The UK-based company has teamed with London's Savoy Hotel to offer what they’ve declared is one of the most luxurious nights of sleep you’ll ever experience. 

What do they have that everyone else lacks? About eight pounds of Mongolian yak hair.

The elegantly-named Savoir No. 1 Khangai Limited Edition is part of the hotel’s elite Royal Suite accommodations. For $1845 a night, guests can sink into the mattress with a topper stuffed full of yak hair from Khangai, Mongolia. Hand-combed and with heat-dispensing properties, it takes 40 yaks to make one topper. In a press release, collaborator and yarn specialist Tengri claims it “transcends all levels of comfort currently available.”

Visitors opting for such deluxe amenities also have access to a hair stylist, butler, chef, and a Rolls-Royce with a driver.

Savoir Beds has entered into a fair-share partnership with the farmers, who receive an equitable wage in exchange for the fibers, which are said to be softer than cashmere. If you’d prefer to luxuriate like that every night, the purchase price for the bed is $93,000. Purchased separately, the topper is $17,400. Act soon, as only 50 of the beds will be made available each year. 

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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Fart Gallery: A Novel History of Spencer Gifts
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Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When U.S. Army Corps bombardier Max Spencer Adler was shot down over Europe and imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II, it’s not likely he dreamed of one day becoming the czar of penis-shaped lollipops and lava lamps. But when Adler became a free man, he decided to capitalize on a booming post-war economy by doing exactly that—pursuing a career as the head of a gag gift mail-order empire that would eventually stretch across 600 retail locations and become a rite of passage for mall-trekking teens in the 1980s and 1990s.

To sneak into a Spencer Gifts store against your parents' wishes and revel in its array of tacky novelties and adult toys felt a little like getting away with something. Glowing with lasers and stuffed with Halloween masks, the layout always had something interesting within arm’s reach. But stocking the stores with such provocations sometimes carried consequences.

A row of lava lamps on display at Spencer Gifts
Dean Hochman, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Returning from the war, Adler sensed a wave of relief running through the general population. Goods no longer had to be rationed, and toy factories could return to making nonessential items. The guilt of spending time or money on frivolous items was disappearing.

With his brother Harry, Adler started Spencer Gifts as a mail-order business in 1947. Their catalog, which became an immediate success, was populated with items like do-it-yourself backyard skating rinks and cotton candy makers [PDF]—items no one really needed but were inexpensive enough to indulge in. In some ways, the Spencer catalogs resembled the mail-order comic ads promising X-ray glasses and undersea fish kingdoms. Instead of kids, Adler was targeting the deeper pockets of adults.

Bolstered by that early success, Adler moved into a curious category: live animals. He had small donkeys transported from Mexico and marketed them as the new trend in domestic pets. LIFE magazine took note of the fad in 1954, observing the $85 burros, being sold at a clip of 40 a day, “except for stubbornness, are very placid.”

Burro fever foreshadowed the direction of Spencer’s in the years to come. The Adlers opened their first physical location—minus livestock—in Cherry Hill, New Jersey in 1963, expanding on their notion to peddle unique gift items like the Reduce-Eze girdle, which promised to shave inches off the wearer’s stomach. That claim caught the attention of the Federal Trade Commission, which chastised the company for advertising the device could reduce body weight without exercise [PDF]. The FTC also took them to task for implying their jewelry contained precious metals [PDF] when the items did not.

Offending the FTC aside, Spencer’s did a brisk enough business to garner the attention of California-based entertainment company Music Corporation of America, Inc. (MCA), which purchased the brand and proceeded to expand it in the rapidly growing number of malls across the country in the 1970s and 1980s. (The mail order business closed in 1990.)

Brick and mortar retail was ideal for their inventory, which encouraged perusal, store demonstrations, and roving bands of giggling teenagers. The company wanted its stores to capture foot traffic by stuffing its aisles with items that had a look-at-this factor—a novelty that invited someone to pick it up and show it to a friend. When executives saw specific categories taking off, they “Spencerized,” or amalgamated them. When there was a resurgence of interest in Rubik’s Cubes and merchandise from the 1983 Al Pacino film Scarface, visitors were soon greeted in stores by stacks of Scarface-themed Rubik’s Cubes.

Mike Mozart via Flickr

Apart from its busy aesthetic—“like the stage from an old Poison video,” as one journalist put it—Spencer's was also known for its inventory of risqué adult novelty items. Pole-dancing kits and sex-themed card games occupied a portion of the store’s layout. The toys captured a demographic that might have been too embarrassed to visit a dedicated adult store but felt that browsing in a mall was harmless.

Sometimes, the store’s blasé attitude toward stocking such items drew critical attention. In 2010, police in Rapid City, South Dakota seized hundreds of items because Spencer's had failed to register as an “adult-oriented business,” something the city ordinance required. As far back as the 1980s, parents in various locales had complained that suggestive material was viewable by minors. In 2008, ABC news affiliate WTVD in Durham, North Carolina dispatched two teenage girls with hidden cameras to see what they would be allowed to buy. While they were shooed away from a back-of-store display, they were able to purchase “two toy rabbits that vibrate, moan, and simulate sex” as well as a penis-shaped necklace.

As a possible consequence of the internet, there are fewer incidences of parental outrage directed at Spencer’s these days. And despite the general downturn of both malls and retail shopping, the company bolsters its bottom line with the seasonal arrival of Spirit Halloween, a pop-up store specializing in costumes. Despite only being open two months out of the year, their Spirit locations contribute to roughly half of Spencer's $250 million in annual revenue.

Today, the chain’s 650 stores remain a source for impulse shopping. They still occasionally court controversy over items that appear to stereotype the Irish as drunken oafs or other inflammatory merchandise. With traditional mall locations expected to shrink by as much as 25 percent over the next five years, it’s not quite clear whether their assortment of novelties will continue to have a large retail footprint. But so long as demand exists for fake poop, fart sprays, and penis ring toss kits, Spencer’s will probably have a home.

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